[Guest preacher Alex Hernandez is Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto, and a St Aidan's parishioner.]
If you’ve ever wandered into an old church and taken a close look at its stained glass you may have noticed that a handful of beastly figures tend to hang around the margins of certain windows. Hovering near the heads of the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—are these curious icons: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, each next to their respective writer. Church historians aren’t sure how these associations began, but the menagerie’s been around since at least the second century and finds its way into several media, from carvings to illuminated manuscripts to of course, leaded glass. There’s even a fancy name for when you see them all together: a tetramorph.
Yet if we can’t be certain about precisely how these icons came to be paired with the evangelists, over time they’ve come to be seen as emblems for the character of each of their gospels. So, Matthew’s account of Jesus begins with a lengthy human genealogy and lays out an ethics we might call impressively suited to this-worldly concerns; while Mark’s gospel bounds out of the desert like a lion, its breakneck plot never really letting up; contrast this to the plodding ox-like movement of Luke, with his concern with priestly details and historical accounting. And then there’s John, the eagle, whose cosmic language calls us to soar with him in contemplation of the very nature of the divine: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And that’s only the first verse. The eagle’s gospel is transcendent we might say, its Jesus is prone to cryptic sayings and long philosophical musings. John loves him a mystery. Not exactly what we’d call down to earth.
This week’s gospel reading offers us one of those cryptic moments, and in this initially seems to confirm that transcendence we see in John’s account. That’s because Chapter 16 is a kind of prophetic goodbye on the part of Jesus, one that looks forward to the passage from Easter into what our liturgical calendar calls ordinary time, our time. Let’s set the stage. On the verge of his death, and with an eye towards his resurrection and ascension, Jesus warns his followers that soon he’ll be gone, returning he says, “to him who sent me.” “Because I am going to the Father...you will see me no longer.” Naturally, this loss is tough for the disciples to swallow. Even worse, Jesus warns, keeping up the mission they started will entail their own suffering and in many cases, death at the hands of an empire bent on cruelty. At many points, he acknowledges, it will seem as if their project of restorative justice has failed spectacularly. Christ looks upon them, verse 6, and realizes that “sorrow has filled their hearts.” Maybe they feel the weight of their impending loneliness. Maybe it’s just fear of what’s uncertain. Perhaps its self-doubt at the prospect of navigating a hostile world without their teacher. But either way, it’s one thing to lose a friend; another thing altogether to be told that remaining faithful to that person’s memory will cost you everything. I think that sometimes the glory of ascension obscures the absence that comes along with it.
Here John surprises us however. For it’s out of the lowness of this moment that Jesus proclaims a kind of hope and power that seems otherwise impossible for the disciples to grasp. What’s more, he promises not absence but rather a renewed intimacy with his Spirit. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus assures them, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Spirit will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Jesus ascends; the Spirit will descend in his place. You will not be alone, he tells his followers. In fact, the word that the gospel writer uses here is even more suggestive than its traditional rendering as the Holy Spirit. What arrives in the place of their Lord at Pentecost is a paraclete, a Greek term that literally means “called alongside” but which we might also usefully translate as “advocate,” “defence counsel,” “comforter,” or quite simply, as “helper.” The Spirit, in each case, stands side by side with the believer, almost as if to embrace those who find themselves at a loss when the world presses in. For all the highfalutin’ metaphysics of John’s eagle gospel, when it comes to describing the person of the Spirit the scripture speaks of someone incredibly close, a holy presence so intensely down to earth that it resides within those brave enough and yes, vulnerable enough to follow Jesus.
That Jesus is calling his followers to bravery alongside this advocate goes without saying, especially in light of the difficult road ahead for the disciples. But there’s something so tender, so embodied about the notion of God’s Spirit as a helper that I can’t help but think it says something fundamental about our relationship to God. Indeed, the very word “helper” is a strange descriptor for God, the more you think about it. It stands at odds with any notion that the divine is far away or inaccessible. To think of the Spirit as a helper is to confess God’s entanglement in our lives and in the world—or at least a desire for that closeness. On the other hand, it also calls to mind a childlike helplessness on our part, the kind of thing that many of us would prefer not to admit we feel.
In an interview conducted a few years before his passing, Fred Rodgers—to many of us, he will always be simply Mr. Rodgers—returned to a point he had made years earlier in a PSA. Reflecting on the impact of news media upon young children, he recalled a line that his mother would use when he would see scary images or hear of tragic news stories as a boy: “Look for the helpers.” It’s a shame that this saying has become something of a sentimental cliche, trotted out whenever the latest global catastrophe occurs, because I think it’s being sapped of some of its insight and power. As one critic of the saying’s use as a “consolation meme” has pointed out, this is all well and good for preschoolers but when you start to see it ceaselessly replicated on Facebook, it’s a pretty good indication that the adults feel hopeless too. Nevermind that the saying originally was meant for kids—I know a number of adults who are feeling pretty hopeless these days, who, in these conditions really could use a helper. It’s not at all clear to me that in the face of ecological degradation, the ravages of a pandemic, longstanding social and racial inequities, etc. a little help wouldn’t be really nice about now. The truth is that sometimes simply voicing that frailty is an act of tremendous strength. Naming our weakness and stepping into vulnerability is part of what I think Christ repeatedly calls us to when he challenges us to be peacemakers in a world that totters towards violence.
In fact, that’s the challenge that Jesus lays out even as he assures his disciples in John 16 that a helper will soon be by their side. For a helper doesn’t do the work alone, but rather aids one in realizing an outcome or conditions that would otherwise be too difficult to achieve by themselves. A helper, the Spirit, is called alongside—paraclete—to assist and empower despite and crucially, within that vulnerability. That’s the grace of Pentecost, when the second chapter of Acts reminds us, God’s Spirit is poured out upon all flesh.
Still, why (according to John) does Jesus make a point of it being an advantage for him to go away? That’s odd. Why does the Spirit’s arrival depend upon his leaving first? Why isn’t he this helper to his disciples? Countless theologians have puzzled over the subtleties of passages like this and whole churches have split over how to interpret just what happens when the Spirit is rolled out in Pentecost. I’m going to sidestep the hard theology here and appeal instead to analogy. Anyone who’s a parent or a teacher might instinctively recognize what’s going on here when Jesus claims that Pentecost awaits his ascension, that they’ll only reallyget it when he steps aside. To take a personal example: in our house we are trying to teach certain responsibilities to our children around setting boundaries, self care, household maintenance, that sort of thing. No easy feat, made exponentially harder by the pandemic and the advent of video games. The toughest part of this, however, is resisting the urge to nag them with reminders, or worse, step in and do their responsibilities for them when they start to slip. That may be easier in the short term, but costly over time. Because when we do that we both absolve them of their responsibilities as well as steal an opportunity for their own flourishing. When we do that, we fail to allow them the space for their own choices to become practices, which become habits, which ultimately make up something like the fulness of character. Here’s the paradoxical part though: when our children or our students finally take up these practices for themselves, when that solidifies into character, we are not absent to them but rather so close as to be embedded in their very way of life. We are, paradoxically, at once present and absent to them.
“If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you...And when he comes he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” At the cross, Jesus provides the example of what restorative justice will entail. It’s costly. In doing so, he demonstrates the bankruptcy of that violence and the disorder of our systems of retributive justice. And then, he steps aside. He invites his disciples—he invites us—to continue that work of restoring the world alongside a prophetic Spirit he refers to as our advocate and helper. When we do so, that Spirit shows just how wrong the Romans were, shows just what a failure that torturous spectacle was, and just how weak these worldly notions of power really are. That power—and I think John’s reference to the “ruler of this world” demands that we think of this in terms of systemic injustice—that power relies upon coercion and fear and the scapegoating of others.
Pentecost enacts our continued rejection of this order. At Pentecost we commemorate instead the moment where the Spirit descends in a manner so palpably present that the book of Acts not only likens it to tongues of fire but also tells of how it begins to dramatically reorder community. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” helped along by this prophetic Christ-like breath, the disciples finally get it. Those gathered there hear each other in their native languages, their differences not erased that is, but rather upheld by a God whose love refuses to be contained. Today that remains both the promise and challenge of Pentecost—may we embrace that with the vulnerability and assurance that we can continue to ask for help.